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Back 2 School: As a wheelchair user.

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I became a quadriplegic at the fairly young age of 20. I was attending community college at the time and already uncertain as to “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Although I have met quite a few people who jumped back into school and work life only months after their injury, I was not one of those people. It took me about two years to begin thinking seriously about returning to school and making a life for myself. Also, I was scared, and unsure of how to get the help I would need if I were to return to school. I was unaware that there were laws in place to ensure that I had equal access to education as my fellow students.

Know your rights, an extremely brief overview.
The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 affords protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities. The ADA provides that no individual with a verified disability can be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. In short, universities are required to reasonably accommodate your needs, so you can achieve your goal of attending and graduating from any institution receiving funding by the federal government (which is about 99% of all universities in the United States).

Where do you start?
You will need to initiate the accommodation process and follow through with phone calls and paperwork yourself. Only persons who disclose their disability to a university are entitled to accommodations, yet students are not required to disclose their disability to other students. Having a new disability is earth shaking in itself, let alone undertaking the daunting challenge of returning to school. Have no fear friend, most universities have this process outlined online on the specific web page of the office for specialized student services. I would recommend making an appointment to speak or meet with a counselor from this office, this will help the process to move more smoothly. Ultimately, you’ll need to validate your medical condition and have a doctor recommend specific accommodations. There are usually downloadable forms on the university’s website for this, many of which indicate the accommodations available at the university. Many universities may require you to do this once a year. It is tedious, but very worth the accommodations gained.

What will you study as a differently abled person?
This was a very challenging question for me to answer. My passions pre-quadriplegia were mostly physical, so I was at a place where I was trying to find new passions while also learning how to navigate daily activities. I couldn’t do very many basic life skills independently such as use the restroom, get dressed, get out of bed, or push my wheelchair. Considering I was still trying to remaster skills that I had learned by age seven, I had a very hard time choosing a direction in school, so I decided to start basic. My very first goal was to get my Associates (AA) degree and fulfill all needed prerequisites to apply for general education (non-major specific) admission to all UC colleges in California. Most colleges and universities have a career counseling office that can offer questioning students advice and direction. For example, at my community college there was a career exploration class where students attend a few sessions and take tests that assess their strengths, skills, and interests. After receiving the results, a person can then meet with a career counselor to map out the specific educational requirements, and how to achieve them to graduate with a degree in one’s chosen career field.

Functional logistics.
There are also additional logistics that need to be considered when returning to school after a disabling life event. I mentioned above that I was scared to attend school, but that is a slight understatement. I was terrified. I was very self-conscious of my physical limitations and needing help. The following are a few concerns I had and how I worked through them:

How was I going to get from class to class?
So, once I registered for my classes I actually went to campus, found where my classes were being held, and figured out an accessible path from one to another. What is awesome is that universities must provide mobility assistance around campus. For me this sometimes meant having a person meet me at the end of one class and push me to my next class. If my classes were on opposite ends of campus, the university usually utilized an accessible vehicle to accomplish this. The need to utilize campus mobility assistance is unique to each individual. Sometimes I utilized the service, sometimes I pushed myself; however, university mobility services require scheduling and you will need to inquire about the specific details at your university.

The effect of COVID has been revolutionary in education, as most subjects figured out a way to teach online. This also eliminated the physical barrier for persons with disabilities, who can now access most classes from their home.

What if I needed to use the restroom?
Again, another aspect of returning to school that has been blessed by COVID. However, as life is resuming back to a different normal, more universities are resuming in person learning, and this obstacle will still need to be tackled by some. I intentionally planned my class schedule so that I would have time for planned restroom breaks. If my class was under an hour in length, I felt I could sit through two classes before scheduling a break of some sort. If my classes were over an hour, I would schedule a break in between classes to use the restroom. Obviously, this will vary from person to person, depending on your level of mobility and restroom needs, but it is something to consider when scheduling on campus classes. Additionally, universities are not required to assist persons with personal care needs; however, when assisting with mobility from class to class, the university assistant can open the restroom door for you.

How am I going to take notes?
Thank goodness for audio and video recording! Also, colleges and universities are required to provide a notetaker in class for you. Sometimes, the university will have the teacher make an announcement that an anonymous student in the class needs a notetaker and ask for volunteers. Depending on your level of mobility, this announcement may not be so anonymous, as was the case for me. Sometimes people volunteered and sometimes they didn’t. If no one volunteers, then the university will supply someone to take notes for you, usually another university student needing to make some extra money. The benefits of having an in-class volunteer is two-fold, the student volunteering will be supplied free paper for the semester to take notes on (you get the carbon copy), and your notes will be more relevant than notes taken from someone not invested in that class.

How am I going to take tests?
If you require testing accommodations that cannot be executed in the classroom without disrupting other students, such as extra time or a note taker to dictate answers to, then you will have to arrange with your professor and the student services office to take the test at a different location. Each university has their own protocol for providing testing accommodations. Once I got into the swing of how I was able to receive accommodations, I began taking initiative and emailing my professors before the first day of class, alerting them of my presence, my needs, and the university’s approval for accommodations. I would get my syllabi and sign up for test rooms and accommodations as soon as I could. If test dates were not indicated on the syllabus, I would ask the professor. It is important to have as many kinks worked out as possible before the first day of each class, so you can direct your attention to learning and succeeding, rather than access and accommodations.

There will be some challenging, and annoying, things you will not be able to avoid. Most commonly, ignorant idiots. Remember, it has only been less than 30 years since persons with disabilities were given the legal right to any access to the public. Therefore, you will run into people who will be astounded that you even left the house -insert eye roll here. People will pet your head, stoop down to speak to you as if you are a child, push your chair without asking, and talk to your assistant instead of asking you questions directly. People will also make a plethora of backhanded compliments, such as, “You’re too good looking to be in a wheelchair,” as if disability discriminates. Or, “Good for you,” when you perform a basic life task such as push up a ramp independently. Let’s not fool ourselves, the collective subconscious of society’s implicit and explicit mental constructs towards persons with disabilities has not had much time to drastically evolve. However, the more we advocate for ourselves and the more visible we become, the more we will be seen and heard and move closer to eradicating our culture of the invisible institutional barriers that perpetuate these demeaning experiences. We must expose these oppressive behaviors in order to bring awareness. Over the years I have developed some responses to persons who just don’t get it. If I find someone staring at me, I stare back and refuse to break eye contact first. If someone pushes my chair without permission I say, “Excuse me!” in a very loud voice, and usually I must repeat it until the person realizes I’m actually speaking to them. I then state, “Please do not touch my chair unless you have asked, and I say yes.” Many people will try to explain that they are simply trying to help. You can then let them know that you’re not a child in a stroller, and that they probably wouldn’t appreciate it if a stranger approached them, grabbed their hand, and drug them where the stranger thought they should go. It is impossible to predict every act of dehumanizing ignorant ideocracy that you may encounter, regardless of how well the intentions are of others, so I say have fun with it! Come up with your own quirky responses to these situations that leave you feeling empowered. It is important for you to know that you are capable and worthy. Also know that YOU are your best advocate.

Considering that one's ability to achieve a higher educational degree directly correlates with one's ability to obtain adequate and sustainable employment, it is no surprise that the best way for a vulnerable population to rise above their circumstances and better integrate with society is through education. Now, despite the list of challenges above, I benefited immensely by returning to school, in addition to becoming educated. I learned how to utilize public transportation, which gave me a newfound independence and expanded my social opportunities. Returning to school gave me a social outlet outside my home which allowed me to rebuild my network of friends as a differently abled being (it is astounding how many people filter themselves out of your life after a major illness or injury... but that’s another writing). Physically navigating a college campus built up my wheelchair mobility skills and I figured out how to better propel myself in unknown situations. I also became more comfortable with asking strangers for help, which was a huge hurdle for me to overcome (yes, there were times that I needed a push up a ramp, but it is my choice if, when, and how I receive help). I discovered that the majority of people I ask for help are really nice and glad to help! Lastly, returning to school gave me a feeling of purpose and accomplishment. I had goals and direction, which felt better than the limbo I was floating in. I continued physical therapy after my injury, and I still continue to put energy toward physically strengthening myself on a routine basis; yet, it got to a point where I needed to enrich my recovery by strengthening my mind and person in order to feel more whole.

Funding resources.
There are numerous websites that list many scholarship opportunities for diversely abled persons. The search and application process for scholarships that specifically apply to each individual can be time consuming, yet financially rewarding. One major source of educational funding from the government comes from the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). Similar to receiving accommodations at a university, there is a standard order of procedure that needs to be followed in order to receive DOR services, which includes verification of needs from a licensed physician. Each state’s DOR may operate slightly differently, but ultimately the DOR financially assists with tuition, books, housing, and potentially necessary school supplies such as a computer, voice activated software, etc.. What I like about the DOR is that many times if a person can get a doctor to recommend an accommodation, such as a touch screen device for writing papers, the DOR will help you access most requested accommodations.

You can do it too!
School is not always the best path for persons wanting to reintegrate into society after a life changing injury or illness, but it was the right path for me and I am happy that I chose it. Returning to school has led me to a very fulfilling life where I work in social work, specializing in helping others move beyond their perceived limitations. I hope that my experience, and the lessons I learned, will help and inspire anyone who is considering returning to school. Anything is possible, sometimes it just takes a little thinking outside the box to overcome some challenges.

All the best,

Jennifer McCallson

Peer Support Advocate

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